Sunday, December 3, 2023

Primary sector has to brace for even faster change

Neal Wallace
Once-in-a-generation reset is difficult for all, says think tank head.
Lain Jager, co-chair of Te Puna Whakaaronui, says an ‘important idea is that the NZ Government is not the prime driver of change and can’t protect NZ farmers from the change that is coming’.
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Global food and fibre sectors are facing significant changes to production systems, and the pace of change will only increase over the next 15 years, says Lain Jager, co-chair of the think tank Te Puna Whakaaronui.

Food value chains are decarbonising and becoming more sustainable, which Jager said reflects a focus on country emission obligations, trade agreements and the demands of large food businesses and their customers.

Other factors producers need to consider are the increasing focus of consumers on the sustainability credentials of food and the vast amounts of investment in technology.

Jager acknowledges the sector is in the middle of once-in-a-generation change, which is difficult for all, especially farmers.

“The right question for the New Zealand Government and farmers to ask is ‘How can we work together most effectively to negotiate the change ahead of us?’, not ‘How can we go slower?’”

Jager warns pressure will come on food value chains to innovate and evolve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as energy and transport make progress decarbonising their sectors 

“An important idea is that the NZ Government is not the prime driver of change and can’t protect NZ farmers from the change that is coming.”

Te Puna Whakaaronui is funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries and is tasked with providing independent thought leadership on issues facing the primary sector.

Another challenge is that dairy and sheep and beef farmers operate very different farming systems and economic models.

“He Waka Eke Noa and the pathways to decarbonisation look very different to dairy farmers and sheep and beef farmers,” Jager said.

The consequences of that are playing out in the current tension in the livestock industry, but Jager said the government can rightly claim it has worked to partner with the sector to confront agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

That is mixed comfort to many farmers who, he said, can’t see a financially viable and practical pathway forward and consequently feel disenfranchised.

“Understandably their reaction is to question whether change is really required, the pace of change and whether changes can be implemented in practical way.”

He said anger and denial will not take the sector forward.

“We need to work together to find a way forward because change is upon us, and growling at the government will not make it go away.”

Jager said farmers and governments must partner with leading exporters because they are close to global customers and consumers, and can calibrate the pace of change.

He said there has been some “outstanding leadership from our industry good organisations” during a decade of trying times, and it is vital to ensure they are well resourced and supported to do the job needed of them in the next 15 years.

“Technology is a critical component in evolving our farming systems.

“Twenty years from now we’ll look back at today’s carbon footprint and be proud of what we’ve achieved.”